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John Murtha dies; longtime congressman was master of pork-barrel politics

Pennsylvania congressman John P. Murtha has died after complications from surgery.

Murtha, whose military decorations included the Bronze Star and two awards of the Purple Heart, was one of the first Vietnam veterans to sit in the House. His district returned him regularly to office, and after 10 years Murtha had quietly established himself as a key Capitol Hill player who could woo lawmakers of divergent views to join forces.

"His reputation is, if you're going to put a coalition together, you have to have Murtha," then-Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.) told The Washington Post for a 1985 profile of Murtha.

In one of the more painful moments of his career, Murtha was listed as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s. As a result of the FBI undercover operation, several Capitol Hill figures were charged with agreeing to pay bribes to agents posing as representatives of Arab sheiks. Murtha was taped talking with an undercover agent about his interest in helping his district, but he was not charged and said he did nothing wrong.

In 2005, he became a darling of the Democratic antiwar movement when the prominent hawk announced that he was in favor of withdrawing troops from Iraq. He had supported the resolution to go to war in 2002, but he later denounced the Bush administration's war effort as badly planned, calling it "a flawed policy wrapped in illusion."

Murtha lost his shot, however, to become House majority leader after Democrats retook control of the House in 2006. He had successfully led Pelosi's campaign to be speaker at that time, but some colleagues argued that he could be a political liability in the leadership because of what they called his old-style politics.

Ethics investigations

In the past two years, Murtha and several close associates came under the scrutiny of ethics and investigative panels.

In 2008, the FBI raided a powerhouse lobbying firm, PMA Group, whose founder, Paul Magliocchetti, was a close friend of Murtha's and which had had unique success in winning earmarks from Murtha for its clients.

In January 2009, federal investigators raided Kuchera Industries, a Pennsylvania company that Murtha had helped grow with more than $100 million in military contracts and earmarks. The company was suspended from receiving further Navy contracts pending an investigation into allegations that the company had defrauded the government in its billing.

In May 2009, the Justice Department subpoenaed records from the offices of a Murtha protege, Rep. Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind). Investigators were looking into allegations that Visclosky's chief of staff, who announced his resignation shortly after the subpoena, had pressured lobbyists to donate to Visclosky's campaign in exchange for earmarks for their clients, two sources familiar with the probe said.

In December 2009, the Office of Congressional Ethics reported that it saw no reason to continue its investigation of Murtha's actions on behalf of PMA Group and recommended that the House ethics committee take no action against him.

In March 2009, Murtha told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that every lawmaker looks out for his own: "If I'm corrupt, it's because I take care of my district. . . . Every president would like to have all the power and not have Congress change anything. But we're closest to the people."

He had a bravado that even his critics admired, in part because he could often back up his seemingly big talk. He publicly squared off with many a heavyweight, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, then-Vice President Richard B. Cheney and even a few presidents.

Last month, Murtha chuckled when asked about President Obama's assertion that he was going to freeze all discretionary spending.

"Well, he can call for it, but we're the guys who make the decision," the congressman said. "I always remind them of that."

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